George Hook: Provinces flounder in Europe as Ireland side thrives
The burning question for Irish rugby is no longer whether an Irish team will reach the knockout stages, but rather is the challenge for the Six Nations and World Cup stillborn?
On Saturday Leinster, boasting four-fifths of an Irish front five, were chewed up and spat out by Harlequins. They were saved by referee Romain Poite doing what he does best - affecting the result of the game. The Leinster try came from a scrum that was a penalty at best and reset scrum at worst, but the Frenchman allowed the game to go on.
For the second successive week, Jack McGrath was mangled in the front row. In any other country it would spell the end of his international aspirations. The resultant pressure transferred across to Mike Ross, with predictable results. In the second half, the home team lost every scrum physically or legally.
Even with Johnny Sexton and Brian O'Driscoll in the backline, they would have been neutered by the set-piece disaster. Harlequins were 20 points a better side but lost this week because of their ball retention.
This problem may be beyond the wit of Joe Schmidt to solve, and he may discover, like many before him, that being the darling of the media can be a two-edged sword.
Munster were much improved in Clermont, but ultimately they were victims of their mistakes. A frenetic early pace signalled the visitors' intent, but their meagre six-point haul from the first 15 minutes could and should have been more.
JJ Hanrahan carved the Clermont defence open early on with clever angles and lightning acceleration. It is beyond belief that he has been restricted to bench duty behind the one-dimensional Denis Hurley.
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Munster failed miserably to capitalise on Hanrahan's vision. The centre's run at the line off an early Munster scrum should have yielded a try, but Andrew Conway inexplicably stayed wide on the wing when Hanrahan was crying out for a pop pass off his shoulder. Clermont held firm and Munster left with nothing.
Conor Murray's inaccuracy with the boot gifted Clermont possession on too many occasions. An early box-kick went out on the full after a brilliant steal by Peter O'Mahony.
Soon after, Murray's failure to find touch handed possession to Clermont, and a try duly followed. It was the first attack of any intent by the French side, yet they finished it superbly to bite into Munster's lead.
Anthony Foley will wonder what might have been had Munster displayed a similarly ruthless streak. Just before the half-hour mark, deep inside the Clermont half, Ian Keatley took the wrong option with a deep pass to an unsuspecting Hanrahan. Clermont gobbled him up and forced the penalty to snuff out the attack.
John Ryan deserves credit for his shift in the scrum. The European debutant acquitted himself admirably in the face of the snarling Georgian Davit Zirakashvili. That it took 37 minutes for Clermont to win a penalty in the scrum is to Ryan's credit, but the Corkman does not provide the same running threat as Dave Kilcoyne and James Cronin.
The nail in Munster's coffin came before half-time. Their defence was in disarray after a wonderful break by Aurelien Rougerie, and when Clermont went wide, the writing was on the wall. A two-point deficit became nine in a matter of seconds.
Murray's kicking game deserted him further in the second half. Another poor box-kick handed possession to the Clermont backs with the resulting counter attack leading to a yellow card for Felix Jones and another three points for Clermont.
The home side should have been out of sight before the final quarter but managed to butcher their best opportunity with the try-line screaming. Seven minutes from time, Clermont's victory was sealed with a third try, but Duncan Casey's late charge to the line and Keatley's penalty kick salvaged an unlikely losing bonus point for the visitors.
It is ironic that Ireland face a Six Nations campaign on the back of their most successful calendar year in memory while the provinces are in disarray. The recent history of rugby in this country is documented by provincial success and national disappointment. Now the reverse is happening. Is it sustainable?
For Munster, Keatley's penalty keeps their hopes of making the quarter-finals alive. With two games to come and 10 points up for grabs, a maximum return might see them through. Leinster, despite their victory, offer little hope of making a mark on this tournament. One wonders how long head coach Matt O'Connor can survive.